Iowa Supreme Court rules speed cameras constitutional

January 31, 2019

Tyson Fisher


In a blow to motorists wanting to get rid of speed cameras in Iowa, the Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that speed enforcement via cameras do not violate due process. The decision officially puts an end to a class action lawsuit filed against the city of Cedar Rapids.

In August 2018, the high court ruled on three traffic camera lawsuits, mostly in favor of the city. However, one case, Behm v. Cedar Rapids, was sent back to the lower court because of the city’s collection procedure, stating it did not conform to state law. On Jan. 25, that case made its way back to the Iowa Supreme Court. This time around, the city received a full victory.

Cedar Rapids’ speed cameras

Nearly 10 years ago, Cedar Rapids passed an ordinance authorizing the city to establish an “automated traffic enforcement system” and install speed cameras. The city also was authorized to hire a third party to provide the equipment and other related services. Beverly, Mass.-based Gatso USA was hired as the contractor. Gatso’s parent company is Gatsometer BV in the Netherlands.

Once the cameras capture a vehicle driving over the speed limit, Gatso sends a letter of notice of the violation to the vehicle owner within 30 days. A vehicle owner may contest the citation by requesting an administrative hearing at the Cedar Rapids Police Department before an administrative appeals board.

After the administrative board makes its decision, a vehicle owner may either pay the fine or submit a request that the city file a municipal infraction in the small claims division of district court. If the city can prove “by clear, satisfactory, and convincing evidence” that the vehicle was travelling above the speed limit, a fine of $25 to $750 would be assessed.

Gatso’s notice of violation tells recipients wishing to contest the violation to “review the city ordinance, the images, and the actual recorded video (if applicable) of the infraction” and provided a limited list of “valid defenses.” The list of valid defenses does not include a defense that the driver was a person other than the vehicle’s registered owner. However, the notice does not mention the option of requesting Cedar Rapids initiate a small claims action in district court where the city would bear the burden of proof.

Behm v. Cedar Rapids

In 2015, six motorists received a notice of violation earlier that same year for an alleged speeding violation on Interstate 380. All six drivers contested the charges with the administrative appeals board, claiming noncompliant camera sites and constitutional questions regarding the city’s failure to prove who was driving and the failure of the city to allow drivers to face and question the accuser. The six drivers filed a joint lawsuit after all six appeals were rejected.

Allegations in the lawsuit include:

  • Administrative hearings go against state procedural law.
  • Violations of the equal protection clause via suppression of certain vehicle plates such as tractor-trailers and government-owned vehicles.
  • Violations of the privileges/immunities clause by way of “compressed distances” between change of speed limits and location of cameras, causing disproportionate impact on out-of-state drivers.
  • Violations of due process as a result of camera placement in areas not correlated with significant safety issues, notifications’ lack of notice of all reasonable/applicable defenses, lack of notice of availability of direct access to Iowa courts and cameras violating Iowa DOT’s rules and regulations.
  • Unjust enrichment on the part of Cedar Rapids and Gatso.

The district court ended up granting the city’s motion to dismiss.

Regarding the suppression of some license plates, the Iowa Supreme Courtdetermined that the “minor degree of under-inclusiveness” does not sufficiently consider the ordinance unconstitutional under the due process, equal protection and privileges and immunities clauses.

In a previous case, the Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that IDOT did not have authority over cities’ traffic cameras rules and regulations, rendering that argument irrelevant.

In terms of procedural due process, the district court ruled that the relative small fine amounts were “not a particularly weighty property interest.” Given the two options to contest, the court found that the chances of “erroneous deprivation was slight.”

Although an appellate court affirmed the district court’s ruling, it did note that “a municipality cannot enact an ordinance that expressly or impliedly conflicts with state law.” Despite the added analysis, the appellate panel concluded that there was no implied preemption of state law.

Speed cams do not ‘shock the conscience’
Considering the question of due process, the Iowa Supreme Court used the “shock-the-conscience” test. The court recognized that the cameras are considered by many to be a speed trap, that the system is unforgiving, and that citizens are deprived of the opportunity to plead their case to an officer. Nevertheless, the court found nothing egregious about the cameras.

“While we respectfully acknowledge these concerns, this case involves traffic citations with small fines, not the pumping of a resisting person’s stomach,” the court opined.

The Iowa Supreme Court sided with the city when determining that the fact the city generates revenue combined with the fact that speeding violations have actually gone up since the cameras were installed does not suggest a lack of safety merit nor does it suggest that the cameras are there for the purpose of generating revenue. However, the high court was critical of certain aspects of the speed cameras:

“If promoting safety were Cedar Rapids’ real goal, why does the ordinance penalize vehicle owners and not the drivers, where the deterrence function would be much greater? The idea that vehicle owners will be more careful allowing others to drive their vehicles seems tenuous at best. One might also wonder why the city maintains a system generating 35,000 tickets per year at the end of the hazardous ‘S’ curve when, according to IDOT, most of the danger has passed. This suggests that the placement of the ATE equipment is concerned with the generation of money rather than safety. And, the notice of violation seems primarily designed to getting money quickly from cited owners by not candidly advising the owners of their right to a district court proceeding and by threatening them with the prospect of adverse impact on their credit rating.”

Despite the criticism, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that there is nothing “inherently irrational” about the speed cameras.